Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Go Figure

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Go Figure

Article excerpt

Go Figure Reading Backwards: Figurai Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness BY RICHARD B. HAYS BAYLOR, 177 PAGES, $34.95

In the heady days of the early Christian Church, Marcion was considered a very dangerous man. In the second half of the second century, bishops and theologians all over the Christian world, from Gaul in the west to Edessa in the east, worked energetically to expose him as a false teacher and discredit the simple idea now attached to his name. Jesus, taught Marcion, reveals a God of love and so liberates humanity from the horrors of serving and believing in the cruel, irrational, and despotic God of the Jews.

Few Christians today would go as far as Marcion in condemning the Old Testament and its portrayal of God. Thanks in part to the stimulus provided by the Marcionite heresy, Christian tradition affirmed the sacred authority of the Old Testament early on and has held fast to the affirmation ever since. Yet this affirmation has only sharpened specific questions about its status, which have dogged churches from antiquity to the Reformation and beyond. What is the role of the Old Testament in shaping Christian identity, practice, and belief? How necessary is it to understanding the Christian Gospel?

In the judgment of Richard Hays, renowned New Testament scholar and dean of Duke Divinity School, it is absolutely crucial. Following on his influential Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, Hays, in his new work, Reading Backwards, has done for the four evangelists what he did for Paul in the earlier work. With subtlety and skill, he shows that the New Testament writers, far from dismissing Jewish Scripture, interacted in sophisticated ways with its themes, traditions, and vocabulary.

Reading Backwards is based on the Hulsean Lectures, which Hays delivered at the University of Cambridge in 2013 and 2014. Despite the lively, oral character of the prose, numerous endnotes and a discussion of relevant scholarship in the preface give this volume the feel of a conventional academic book. By Hays's own admission, though, the book is small, a "sort of progress report" on what will eventually be a larger, fuller study of the "echoes" of Jewish Scripture in the four Gospels.

What the book lacks in fullness of argument and exposition, it makes up for in readability, coherence, and simplicity of design. In the first chapter, Hays introduces the book's key concept. It is important to recognize that his objective in this book is not historical or historiographic. That is, he does not simply make the obvious point that the Old Testament is essential background for understanding the Gospel writers and their first-century contexts. His aim, instead, is hermeneutical, to make a point about how the Christian Bible ought to be read. "We learn how to read the Gospels by reading forwards from the OT"- and here is Hays's contribution-"we learn to read the OT by reading backwards from the Gospels."

Instead of reading in one direction, from Old to New, Hays describes a hermeneutical two-way street. To understand the Gospels, one must read forward from Israel's Scriptures to their fulfillment in the life of Jesus. But the concept of fulfillment also entails a "retrospective reinterpretation of Israel's traditions" that directs the reader back to the Old Testament ; thus, the truth of the Gospels also becomes the basis for understanding Scripture. To understand Jesus and the Christian message, one must read the Gospels, but one cannot read them properly without following them "backwards" into the Old Testament.

Hays identifies the primary linkage between the Gospels and the Old Testament with the Gospel writers' use of figurai interpretation. According to Erich Auerbach and the "classic definition" found in his Mimesis, "figurai interpretation establishes a connection between two events or persons in such a way that the first signifies not only itself but also the second, while the second involves or fulfills the first. …

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